The Golden State Warriors built a dynasty based on a mathematical fact so rudimentary it’s obvious to preschoolers: Three points are more than two. This elementary idea catalyzed a revolution—and the analytics of efficient decision-making overtook NBA strategy.
In the NFL, there isn’t one single inefficiency—like the underuse of a 3-point line far away from the basket—to exploit. So as analytics-driven efficiency boomed in the NBA, the NFL experienced no such upheaval.
Then came 2018. The passing game produced more points than at any point in NFL history, and there was one team at the forefront. The Kansas City Chiefs became the Golden State Warriors of football.
The Chiefs, though, didn’t have one idea that would make their offense one of the best in NFL history and the vanguard of a changing league. Instead, the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid produced the highest-scoring offense in a historic season with a series of smaller innovations.
“He does a great job of taking new ideas, new concepts and utilizing them in a productive and efficient way,” said Bill Belichick, whose Patriots face Kansas City in the AFC Championship on Sunday. “They’re hard to stop.”
But the Warriors didn’t just have a cutting-edge strategy. They also had a transcendent player to lead their offense: Stephen Curry. And the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes took an already productive offense to new heights. The Chiefs’ Alex Smith led the NFL in passer rating a year ago, but Mahomes’s arm and athleticism provided opportunities to completely blow open the game.
Individually, none of the Chiefs’ ideas were radical. But together, they created the best offense in the NFL. These are the ideas they exploited to take over the league:
Owning 1st Down—and Avoiding 3rd Down
The smartest thing for any team to do when it gets the ball is to throw the ball immediately. The Chiefs do this more than anyone else.
When their games were tied—the Chiefs passed the ball a league-leading 61.1% of the time on first down, according to Pro-Football-Reference. That’s not just the highest rate in the NFL. It’s 10.6 percentage points higher than the team with arguably the greatest coach of all-time and the same one who will be opposite Reid on Sunday: Belichick.
Here is the Chiefs’ analytical thinking. Teams average 7 yards per pass play on first down, versus 6.6 on second down and 5.4 on third. The big drop-off on 3rd downs in particular—when opposing defenses usually have a higher degree of certainty that the offense might throw the ball—means the best thing any offense can do is avoid reaching that down. The Chiefs had the fewest third-down snaps in the entire NFL.
Even when the Chiefs built an early lead, they didn’t turn conservative and let opponents claw back. They passed 62% of the time on 1st and 2nd downs when they had a lead of seven-to-21 points in the first three quarters—the highest rate in the NFL.
Exploit Modern Rules to Break the Game
The NFL has never done more to protect offensive players, especially quarterbacks, and no quarterback has taken advantage of this like Mahomes.
Mahomes has two skills that he combines to make a lethal concoction. He has generational arm strength and the ability to extend plays with his athleticism. Together, they allow the Chiefs to make plays that no other team in the league comes close to matching.
In an era where it seems like a flag is thrown every time a defender touches a quarterback, Mahomes is fearless to bounce around and wait for a big play. When he waits at least four seconds to throw—far above the league target of 2.5 seconds—the Chiefs average a league-high 10 yards per attempt because his ability to throw deep while on the run can take advantage of the entire field. On these same plays, the rest of the league averaged only 6.6 yards. The Chiefs led the NFL with 877 passing yards on these improvisational plays, 200 yards more than the next team, according to Stats LLC.
“He’s definitely a guy that’s able to extend plays,” said Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers, who added that Mahomes isn’t “looking to run but he’s looking to throw the ball down the field.”
This wasn’t the only way the Chiefs took advantage of the rules. They threw the ball aggressively over the middle of the field, averaging a league-high 11.3 air yards per attempt while throwing a higher-than-average percentage of passes there. Teams average significantly more yards per pass over the middle because there is no sideline serving as an extra defender and receivers can no longer be leveled when defenseless without receiving a personal foul penalty.
The result of these schemes: Mahomes was the second player ever to throw for 5,000 yards and at least 50 touchdowns. The Chiefs offense averaged the second-most ever yards per play and scored the third-most points since the NFL went to its 16-game schedule.
Make the Defense Defend Every Player
The Warriors became more impossible to defend than ever with a group of players called “The Death Lineup.” The name came from the fatal proposition they presented: All five players on the court—Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes (who was later replaced by Kevin Durant)—could shoot 3-pointers. It stretched defenses to the extreme.
The Chiefs built their offense on a similar principle. Its best players get open because defenders have to pay attention to every offensive weapon, who are among the fastest at their positions. Receiver Tyreek Hill clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time for a receiver since 2013. Damien Williams ran the fastest 40-yard-dash among running backs at his combine. Tight end Travis Kelce’s combination of size and speed is only comparable to some of the best ever at the position like Chiefs great Tony Gonzalez or his counterpart on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski.
In response, defenses have to either use single coverage on players who need double coverage, or leave somebody else open so they can pay proper attention to Hill and Kelce.
When defenses opted for that latter option Mahomes torched them by throwing to his running backs, averaging 11.2 yards per play on those passes—first in the league and well above the league average of 7.9.
And while the Warriors’ pioneered an idea of positionless basketball, the Chiefs are at the forefront of positionless football. The Chiefs backs were unmatched in efficiency in the receiving game. Hill ranked fourth in the NFL among wide receivers in rushing yards, with fellow receiver Sammy Watkins also in the top-20. Kelce led all tight ends in receiving yards while lined up like a wide receiver in the slot.
But this is Mahomes’s first season playing in the playoffs, and he’s not just facing any other team in the AFC Championship. The Chiefs are going up against the league’s pre-eminent dynasty, one led by a famously successful and curmudgeonly head coach. Golden State once ran into the same problem. The first time the Warriors made the playoffs in the Curry era, they lost—to Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
Write to Andrew Beaton at firstname.lastname@example.org